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Many are familiar with Icarus from Greek mythology. The son of Daedalus, a master craftsman, Icarus and his father were imprisoned in the Labyrinth, a maze of his father’s creation meant to house the Minotaur. To escape, Daedalus fashioned two sets of wings from feathers and wax. He warned his son not to fly close to the sun, as the wax would melt. But, Icarus, giddy with his flight ability, didn’t heed his father’s advice. His flying apparatus melted, and he fell into the sea, meeting his death.
DARPA’s Inbound, Controlled, Air-Releasable, Unrecoverable Systems (ICARUS) program is taking a cue from its Greek namesake. The program hopes to develop an aircraft capable of delivering small payloads—less than 3 lbs—and disappearing after mission completion. Potential payloads may contain additional batteries, communications devices or medical supplies.
“Vanishing delivery vehicles could extend military and civilian operational capabilities in extenuating circumstances where currently there is no means to provide additional support,” said Troy Ollson, program manager of ICARUS. “Inventing transient materials, devising ways of scaling up their production, and combining those challenges with the hard control and aerodynamic requirements to reach the precision and soft-landing specs we need here makes for a challenging and compelling engineering problem.”
Currently, payloads are delivered via parachute-based delivery systems, which require packing-out, adding a time-consuming activity and weight to individuals’ loads.
“Following a night drop, the air delivery vehicle must completely, physically disappear within (4 hrs) of payload delivery or within 30 mins after morning civil twilight, whichever is earlier,” according to a solicitation notice from DARPA. “To be considered not visible to the naked eye, DARPA nominally quantifies physical disappearance, or transience, as producing remnants not exceeding 100 µm on the longest dimension.”
The aircraft must be able to be deployed from a stationary balloon 35,000 ft high, and cover a lateral distance of up to 150 km. Afterwards, it must drop its payload within 10 m of a GPS-programmed target. At its longest dimension, the aircraft can be no more than 3 m.
DARPA believes technology from the agency’s Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program can be integrated into ICARUS. The VAPR program sought to develop electronics capable of dissolving/self-destructing when triggered.
“With the progress made in VAPR, it became plausible to imagine building larger, more robust structures using these materials for an even wider array of applications,” said Olsson, who is also the program manager of VAPR. “And that led to the question, ‘What sorts of things would be even more useful if they disappeared right after we used them?’”
ICARUS’ two-phase program is scheduled for 26 months with $8 million in funding.